I grew up in Melbourne, completed my BSc and Post Grad Diploma in Dietetics at Deakin Uni and started work as a dietitian at Queen Victoria Hospital in Melbourne in 1980. In the mid-80s the family moved to a small acreage on the NSW south coast where we grew biodynamic veges, helped set up a Steiner school and I continued working as a dietitian in community health.
A major reason for the move from city to country was to provide our children with a healthy lifestyle; homegrown/home cooked food, 12 acres to play on, fresh air and lots of alternatives to computer games and TV. Basically a healthy diet with minimal processed or takeaway foods, plenty of outside play and limited sedentary activities. (My adult son still complains about the 3 hours of TV viewing he was allowed per week.)
Two of our children thrived with this lifestyle and were active, lean children. However my middle daughter, Jeanne, did not fare so well. As a youngster she carried weight around her tummy, which did not disappear during growth spurts as usually happens. She was more interested/ preoccupied with food than her siblings, could get very grumpy if a meal was delayed and at times would eat surprisingly large amounts in proportion to her size. She also breathed through her mouth, was less energetic than her siblings, happy to sit rather than be active and could be moody at times.
Even though I was aware of these things when she was young, I was not particularly concerned. However, this all changed when she reached 11 or 12 years of age and gained a lot of weight quite quickly, going up two clothes sizes in a year. I had been a dietitian for around 20 years at this point, very experienced in advising people on how to lose weight, and I had no idea what was happening with my own daughter.
A major piece of the puzzle came from a chance meeting with a GP from Canberra. Because of a similar experience in her own family, she suggested that Jeanne be tested for insulin resistance. The result came back indicating the presence of mild to moderate insulin resistance, which at the time created more questions than gave me answers. I knew that IR was a common finding in people with type 2 diabetes but Jeanne’s blood glucose levels were normal. What I didn’t know then was that IR was responsible for her weight gain, low energy levels, mouth breathing, moodiness, capacity to eat large amounts and preoccupation with food. And I discovered that if her IR was incorrectly managed, down the track she would likely develop sleep apnoea, type 2 diabetes, kidney impairment, depression, anxiety, lethargy, day-time sleepiness and be overweight or obese.
So I started by googling insulin resistance and came up with over ten million sites! I narrowed this down a little and started with articles published in medical journals. With the information from around 1500 scientific articles that I have read since that diagnosis 14 years ago, as well as the experience gained from trialing different diet approaches and observing these effects at close hand with my daughter and hundreds of clients, my understanding of healthy eating has undergone a complete transformation.
One of the most illuminating understandings I have come to is that there is not one diet approach or set of guidelines that will suit everyone. This seems almost juvenile in its simplicity but we (dietitians, medical practitioners and the general population) have been taught the exact opposite. For the last thirty years we have had national dietary guidelines that have informed us how to eat to be healthy; reduce saturated fat intake and include plenty of carbohydrates. (I should add that in the same time frame rates of obesity and type 2 diabetes have skyrocketed.)
It was only with the personal experience of following the guidelines and having a child develop a weight problem that I was forced to question my beliefs about ….well actually everything to do with weight, health, nutrition, diabetes, heart disease, dietetic practice, free thinking, best practice guidelines, vested interests in nutrition and more.
The research I undertook resulted in the conclusion that science points to a completely different approach to managing insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes than the low saturated fat/ carbohydrate based diet currently recommended.
I started using this new approach with my daughter and, after seeing how well she responded, began advising clients with insulin resistance, weight problems and type 2 diabetes on this same approach. The results have been as the science predicted — lower blood glucose levels, weight loss, improved blood lipid levels, better sleep, more energy, less anxiety and depression, reduced reflux and indigestion and lower blood pressure. And it has been most gratifying to see people who have unsuccessfully tried many diets, finally be able to lose weight and keep it off.
A client once asked me to thank my daughter for having insulin resistance, so that I could learn from her experience and pass this knowledge onto him and others. I understand what he means. This pairing of my science background, dietetic training, skeptical mind and slightly obsessive desire to understand all the pieces of the puzzle, with the opportunity to closely observe the effects of food on many aspects of my daughter’s wellbeing, is probably unique. Without it I may still be advising clients on how to eat less and exercise more rather than explaining how our bodies react to the food we eat. This is the starting point for working out a way of eating that not only keeps us healthy but most importantly, allows us to take pleasure in food and enjoy life.
This understanding has certainly helped my daughter. At 28 years old she has maintained a size 12 for many years, has good energy and even moods. Fingers crossed but I can see no reason why she shouldn’t maintain her present good health, rather than face the bleak prospect that poorly managed IR usually presents.